School of Information Science - Hall of Fame

John Backus
  • John Backus
  • Born: December 3, 1924
  • Field: Programming languages
  • Focus: Developed the FORTRAN programming language for scientific and mathematical applications.
  • Country: United States
  • Era: 1950 to 1969

FORTRAN (an acronym for FORmula TRANslation, the first high-level programming language [HLL]), was invented by John Backus for IBM in 1954 and released commercially in 1957. It is still used today for programming scientific and mathematical applications.

Backus headed the IBM team of researchers that invented FORTRAN at the Watson Scientific Laboratory at Columbia University in New York. The IBM team didn't invent HLL or the idea of compiling programming language into machine code, but FORTRAN was the first successful high-level language, and the FORTRAN I compiler held the record for translating code for over 20 years.

FORTRAN is now over 45 years old and remains the top language in scientific and industrial programming. It has been constantly updated. FORTRAN has been used for programming video games, air traffic control systems, payroll calculations, numerous scientific and military applications, and parallel computer research.

Backus won the 1993 National Academy of Engineering's Charles Stark Draper Prize, the highest national prize awarded in engineering, and in 1977 he won the A.M. Turing Award for profound, influential, and lasting contributions to the design of practical high-level programming systems, notably through his work on FORTRAN, and for seminal publication of formal procedures for the specification of programming languages.

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